How does a Steam Engine Work

For centuries the steam engine has been powering the British industry and even today steam plays a big part in the generation of electricity We take a look at the men behind these major inventions.

Until the start of the 18th Century, machines were powered by muscle, water or wind, but steam power provided the potential for growth and flexibility on a mass scale. Steam engines facilitated the birth of large factories as production moved from rural riverbanks to industrial towns creating the formation of the cities we know today.

Steam power had been around for generations but it wasn’t until 1698 that its application into industry was made. Military engineer Thomas Savery created a patent for raising of water by “the impellent force of fire” the first noted design of a steam pump. In 1712 Thomas Newcomen continued Savery’s work and constructed the first successful steam engine, the atmospheric engine.

Its purpose was to rid coalmines of floodwater, allowing miners to reach new depths. It was considered so efficient for its time the design wasn’t altered for six decades and the template was copied up and down the country.

Steam Engine WorkBritish engineer James Watt came to largely represent the face of the steam movement, because his many patents prevented other engineers from furthering the progression of steam-powered machinery until they expired in 1800, at which point a hungry new league of engineers took up the baton. Richard Trevithick pioneered “strong steam’ (steam at high pressure), meaning vapour could be ‘compounded’ and used repeatedly in a series of cylinders. Such a method was used in ships, railways and agriculture, inspiring various new vehicles and machines, from self-propelled steam boats and carriages to traction engines for the land and engine houses for grinding and processing grain.

By 1820 steam locomotives were commonplace and in 1830 ‘The Liverpool and Manchester Railway’ opened as the world’s first inter-city passenger railway, engineered by George Stephenson and utilizing locomotives that were designed by his son Robert, including the magnificent Rocket.

Towards the end of the 19th Century inventors found new ways to maximize steam efficiency and in 1884 Charles Parson’s steam turbines opened new possibilities. Today steam-powered engines aren’t in widespread commercial use, but some of their applications can still be seen from the production of electricity to underwater jet engines.